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Mike Cloud: Painting Outside the Safe Space

As the lockdown stretches into another month, we’ve checked in on artists to ask how quarantining is affecting their studio practice. For some, the present emergency has spurred unlikely new ways of working. For others, it’s grinding work to a halt, whether for logistical reasons or just for emotional ones.

Mike Cloud, an abstract painter with a Yale M.F.A. who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, falls somewhere in the middle. Mr. Cloud is known for applying bold colors to unusually shaped canvases, as well as for discreetly provocative gestures, like his “Hanging” paintings, a series of triangular constructions draped with small nooses. He spoke to me by FaceTime from the Chicago home he shares with his wife, the artist Nyeema Morgan, and their two children.

These are edited excerpts from our conversation.

What inspires you to paint during a pandemic?

Painting right now feels like the most important thing I can do aside from taking care of myself and keeping my family healthy. Even the greatest paintings in history must have seemed trivial in comparison to the workaday struggles surrounding their creation. On the day Rembrandt was painting “The Night Watch,” or Hokusai was painting “The Great Wave of Kanagawa,” there must have been some contract being signed in a wool guild that would impact the livelihoods of hundreds of people, or some trial going on in a courthouse where someone’s life hung in the balance. But from our perspective, 200 years later, those lives and livelihoods are lost no matter what. Painting is a way to make things keep mattering beyond the immediate.

So what are you painting now?

Well, the way that I make paintings is, I make them in small groups of four or five, maybe six — and each painting is different. I start with the Star of David painting and they kind of get more complex in shape.

Why a Star of David?

You know, I went to a show, and there was this big painting, maybe it was 20 feet long and 10 feet tall or something, and it was an ocean. But it doesn’t even matter what it was a painting of, because it was just about how awesome painting is. At that scale, that’s all a painting can be about.

I was curious about how to get past a “victory of abstraction” as a kind of narrative in the way we understand painting. I thought of going back to World War II, and the idea of survival — that survival is actually a synthesis between winning and losing. So I made this painting that’s 10 feet tall and 20 feet wide, and it’s two Stars of David. It’s called “Removed Individual.” And maybe somebody liked it, or they didn’t like it, but nobody ever thought it was about how awesome painting was.

You’re referring to the badge Jews were made to wear in Nazi Germany, and you’ve talked about how the yellow star, pink triangle and other symbols used in Nazi concentration camps resonate with the simple geometries of modern art. What is it about that comparison that strikes you?

Well, the way I was taught abstraction was that it was kind of a safe space for painters, it was a retreat from meaning. You know, Freud called abstraction “uncontentious.” But when I went into that space and picked up those tools, it was obvious that they had a history as weapons.

How do you feel about picking up those weapons of abstraction?

There’s nothing else to pick up!

So you start with a Star of David painting …

The first thing I do is I build them, to be some shape or form, and then I paint them to be a [single] color, and then I presumably paint image or text or some such thing on them. But right now I don’t really feel like painting yet, so they’re remaining monochromes longer than they usually do. I have no idea what they’ll be as paintings, but … you know, I’m in more of an emotional flux, I suppose.

Because of quarantine?

I’m realizing how much of our civilization is based on child care.

You and your wife are at home with two kids?

They’re about to be 3 and 5.

So how do you get any work done? You take turns?

We both teach. I teach on Monday and Tuesday, she teaches Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. When the weather permits we go outside and play in the dirt.

When something frightening is happening, I find it hard to focus on art. Is there anything you’re doing to help you concentrate?

Nothing really helps me to concentrate on painting. It’s the other way around: Painting helps me concentrate on the other aspects of life. It emotionally organizes my thoughts and allows me to externalize and reflect on my emotional engagements. Sometimes artists confess that they have trouble making art when they’re in difficult emotional places, but in my experience, they’re going about it the wrong way. Painting isn’t something I only do when I feel good and focused, it’s what I need to do in order to feel good and focused.

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